The Hollywood Bad Boy Is Dead; Long Live Keanu Reeves
by Dan Kahan
How Keanu Reeves became the most desirable man of the #MeToo era
From Brad Pitt to Chris Brown, archetypal bad boys have dominated Hollywood's "Most Desirable Men" landscape since forever.
The bad boys of Hollywood exude raw sex appeal both onscreen and off, their personal lives as messy and dramatic as their biggest blockbusters. Their sweaty six-packs on glossy magazine covers erase any temporary fallout from scandals, affairs, or abuse. Sure, they may not be nice, but that doesn't mean they're not nice to look at.
Or at least, that's how things used to be. Nowadays, Hollywood seems more defined by rampant #MeToo scandals than anything else. For the first time, maybe ever, the bad deeds of the rich and famous actually seem to stick to their reputations––at least sometimes. Alongside the increased visibility of sexual assault and toxic masculinity, many formerly beloved stars now come with asterisks next to their names: *rapist, *pedophile, *woman beater, *accused. In the history of celebrity culture, never before has it been so clear that we don't actually know our idols––not Johnny Depp, not Morgan Freeman, not Aziz Ansari. Are all Hollywood heartthrobs potential scumbags?
Enter: Keanu Reeves. Recently, Keanu Reeves has been having a major cultural explosion. It's not that he wasn't big before––in his 30 year career, he's played iconic characters as varied as metalhead stoner Ted in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and office drone-turned-cyber warrior Neo in The Matrix. But only now, at 54 years old, is Keanu Reeves regarded as the ultimate heartthrob.
Unlike the many heartthrobs of Hollywood's past, and in spite of his badass action hero roles (like John Wick), Keanu Reeves isn't a bad boy. He doesn't party like a rock star. He doesn't move from girlfriend to girlfriend or marriage to marriage. He doesn't get into feuds. He's just a really, really, really nice guy. Unlike many other celebrities, whose media attention revolves around tabloid drama, Keanu Reeves' stories tend to revolve around being nice to strangers and actively not touching women in pictures. In many ways, Keanu Reeves is like the adult version of a teen heartthrob.
Since Disney's primary audience is young girls, their marketing of young teen idols can't rely on obvious sex appeal. A large chunk of their target demographic doesn't even actively understand what sex is. But that doesn't mean they're not interested in boys, so instead, Disney sells a boyfriend experience. Disney boys are kind, attainable, and most of all, safe. Boys like the Jonas Brothers circa the mid 2000s, purity rings and all, are the kind that young girls want to ask out to dances and share secrets with.
As girls get older, their love interests do too. Nice, wholesome boys give way to angsty, troubled teens who break all the rules and just want to get out of this suburban town, man. Those bad boys don't need to be nice; they need to be sexy. And unlike the fresh-faced young lads of Tiger Beat, the bad boys never go out of style. In fact, more often than not, the good boy teen idols transform their image into bad boys in order to stay relevant.
But that's what makes the Keanu Reeves effect so special. After years and years in the spotlight, no matter what else is going on culturally, Keanu Reeves remains consistently nice. No matter what roles he takes, his public image seems authentically kind. And in the age of #MeToo, when celebrities are being outed left and right as creeps and predators, Keanu Reeves' sincere goodness is in short supply.
That's not to say every bad boy is necessarily a bad guy, but even at their best, the bad boy archetype comes dangerously close to toxic masculinity. Bad boys tend to be defined through their negative traits like anger and angst and their misdeeds like cheating and punching jukeboxes. Their appeal lies largely in the desire to change them or the knowledge that even though they shun the rest of society, they're loyal to the proverbial you and only you. Culturally, we're finally moving away from glorifying that breed of masculine rage. We've come to understand that a lot of the time, angry guys aren't just misunderstood, they're dangerous. Bad boys may be hot, but no level of hotness is worth mistreatment, predation, or abuse.
Now, wholesomeness is more in demand. Why would anyone want a guy who's only nice to them when they could have a guy who's nice to everyone? As society shifts and grows, and more young girls come into their own as powerful women, notions of masculinity change too. Men shouldn't strive to be complex puzzles of darkness and rage. Men don't need to define themselves through pent-up violence. Men don't need someone to "understand" them and "fix" them; they need to take responsibility for themselves. Men can be kind and decent and friendly and still be just as masculine and attractive as even the baddest bad boys. Just look at Keanu Reeves.